HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - Horry County has a gang problem, and it's getting worse.
At the moment, police have identified some 1,500 gang members in the county who are part of about 50 gangs, including some connected to the notorious Bloods and Crips.
The crimes they are accused of committing don't only involve drugs, but also murder, including several shootings in one area of the county this year. Anchor Brennan Somers found out how one community fought back against gangs and won, and what's being done to stop the violence in another area.
One major problem is plaguing the streets and neighborhoods of the Longs community: gangs. This issue came to a head in recent months following a series of murders, all linked to gangs, that left six people dead, including two teens: 18-year-old Quentin Reeves and 14-year-old Taizuan Dewitt. Both victims were shot and killed just weeks apart.
"Unfortunately we don't have the resources to have the intelligence that we would need to try and prevent these kinds of things, and a lot of them may or not be preventable," responded Lt. Raul Denis with Horry County Police, when asked why these crimes seem to continue occur weekend after weekend.
What makes the task of stopping this violence even more difficult for police are the locations of some of these crimes. Three of the murders happened at or near what basically amount to nightclubs or bars that pop up overnight.
"They're not even parties at what you would consider a nightclub or bar," Lt. Denis said. "Sometimes they are just parties that erupt, and unfortunately they erupt, and unfortunately the crowd that goes there in the middle of the night is just the same crowd that has that same propensity for the involvement in gangs and the violence that goes along with it."
A major hurdle police face when trying to figure out how to keep an eye on these pop-up "clubs" or "bars" is that some of them aren't legitimate businesses, and simply open inside an empty building, making them harder to track or shut down.
"Some of the stuff up in Longs is not even a business," said Horry County Solicitor Jimmy Richardson. "There's no license to strip, just a building that magically pops up one night. I don't know if it's driven by social media or what."
A business can be shut down for a year if it's deemed a public nuisance, but Richardson says the process to do that costs anywhere from $4,000 $8,000, and police have to pay for it.
"The beauty of it is, we don't have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it is a general nuisance, but we have to by a preponderance of the evidence," Richardson added.
There must be evidence that there is rampant prostitution, drug sales, or the business is a place where police have to use a lot of resources responding to calls, including cases where police say it doesn't take long to determine if the crime is in fact gang-related.
"Gang members want people to know they are gang members," Lt. Denis said. "They want that credential, they want that association. It's important for them to be recognized with this particular group, 'So don't fool with me or you'll pay for it.'"
Fueled by the call for change in the wake of the murders and gang violence in Longs this year, the Horry County Police Chief took the department's fight to county council, looking for help. The council got the message.
"I believe we are at that point, ladies and gentlemen, we have a serious problem, we got a gang problem, we got a drug problem, we got a crime problem, we got to attack it," announced Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus at a meeting earlier this year.
The new budget allows the police department to add four new gang investigators to its force. Right now, it's not exactly clear what roles they'll play, but police say these new hires could serve as agents, fight street level crime, or go undercover to help identify gangs. But simply making arrests, police say, isn't enough.
"We have to approach the gang issue as a much bigger issue than just whether or not we go out and arrest a bunch of people, because that's not necessarily going to address the problem," Lt. Denis said.
Horry County Police are now working to form a regional gang task force made up of multiple agencies to bring an end to the violence.
In addition to what law enforcement groups are working on, there's also the grassroots effort to take back local communities from gang-related violence.
"When the 14 year old Taizuan was murdered, that really hit home with several of the young people in my church and congregation," said Wallace Evans Junior of the Chesterfield Missionary Baptist Church. "They knew him very well, knew the family, so that was my classmate's son, so that was really devastating to see him lose his life at such a young age."
Evans Junior knows what good can happen when a community comes together and takes a stand against crime and violence. He's seen it first-hand off Highway 378 in Conway, another area known for drugs and gangs that was hit with violence, including multiple murders in the past.
But now it appears this area is recovering, thanks in large part to the program "Conway: Starting Toward a New Direction, or C-STAND. As part of C-STAND, the US. .Attorney's Office and local law enforcement went on a year-long undercover drug investigation that led to a federal drug indictment.
When those law enforcement agencies came to the community off Highway 378 in Conway, they made it clear to the people there that undercover agents and officers would be on these streets, trying to buy drugs from criminals who were selling them, and despite that warning, several people still sold drugs to those officers, and they ended up behind bars While the gang and drug problem may not be completely gone from this neighborhood, the people who live here say Longs could benefit, because their area is much better off because of programs like C-STAND.
These programs are aimed at getting the most serious criminals off the streets, while at the same time offering other suspects who police feel can turn their lives around a chance to become functioning members of society.
At a Father's Place in Conway, Evans Junior's mission is to help them do just that. "Economics is a huge part of what we are talking about, we're are talking about impoverished communities, low-wealth communities, and not having a lot of opportunity to expose them to other opportunities to get their GED, to further their education, to look all the realm of different possibilities for their lives," he said.
In addition to ending with indictments or drug suspects working through a program to get back to a clean life, Solicitor Richardson says sweeping programs like C-STAND also serve as a reminder to criminals that a community is on watch.
"If this guy is facing 18 to 20 years is he going to tell on me?" Richardson asks. "All of this is going on at the same time and the people that are under them then they are having to wonder, 'Where am I going to get my drugs from to sell, because I'm used to going to this guy getting my drugs and selling to this guy.'"
Horry County Police did not talk specifics about what possible programs or operations they may use to rid Longs of its crime, Lt. Denis says there is an effort underway.
"It's pretty involved, especially when you're talking about involving other agencies, federal agencies, state agencies," Lt Denis said. "You know, it takes time to put it all together and see it come to fruition.
As police work on a plan to take care of the gang members and criminals in Longs, it's people like Evans Junior and members of the Chesterfield Missionary Baptist church working with the families of the victims and neighbors to get the message out that the violence has to stop, while finding ways to keep young people out of gangs.
"See they don't really seem to have a purpose, see the value in life it's sad that their lives are being ended at such a young age, and the ones who are perpetrating the crime - their lives are effectively ending because they are looking at long prison terms," lamented Evans Junior.
The Horry County Solicitor's Office is also finding ways to work with children aged 9 and 10, a target age, police say, for who gangs are trying to recruit by selling kids on a message that Richardson says hides the truth of what a gang really is.
"A gang is a bastardized family, and that's what they promote themselves as," Richardson explained.
The Solicitor's Office plans to implement what's known as Project Lead. The program, started in 1993 by the Los Angeles DA's office, has now been copied and used in schools across the country as a way to teach young students about the consequences of crime and the justice system. Richardson says Project Lead is set to be in some Horry County schools starting this August.
Of the six murders in and around Longs so far this year, police say only one case was not gang-involved: the death of a clerk during a robbery at a Sunhouse gas station. However, police say the suspects in that case were gang members.
Read and watch more on all six recent fatal shootings here: